What Did The Puritans Believe About Sex, Money and Fun?

Note: This is the first in four entries about Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. Since it is a large book (900+ pages) I did not want to write a single review. Instead I am explaining what I learned from the book about each of the four British American colonies Fischer examines. I have carefully tried to attribute everything Fischer writes, but in case I missed any attributions, be advised that the ideas come from Fischer and I am just relaying them. If you have not read the book, and are interested in the American Colonial Era, I highly recommend it.

JohnWinthropColorPortraitOne significant error I made when I began researching my American heritage was presuming that all colonies (and colonists) were the same. They were, after all, the colonies.

Of course, that’s like presuming every white, 50-something male living in southwest Ohio thinks like I do — or for that matter, anyone who shares my surname, shares my beliefs.

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) author David Hackett Fischer examines the four significant British belief systems that impacted the beginning — and current — mindset of the United States. In the first section he examines the folkways of the Puritan-based settlement that formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

What is a Folkway?

Fischer defines a folkway as the beliefs and customs that represent a group. In his book, Fischer examines 20-25 beliefs and customs for each of the four British American colonies. This includes customs about speech, marriage, religion, education, food, work, government, sex and clothing to name a few.

Why This Method Works

By paring society down to specific patterns, Fischer is able to dissect each of the four British settlements in an apples-to-apples comparison. So, for example, by examining how the Puritans chose to govern their society one can see how it measures up to the way the Virginia colony (where the Claywells landed) was governed.

The Big Three: Sex, Recreation and Money.

Using Fischer’s research, I’m going to look at three of the folkways: sex, recreation and money. I’ll begin with money.

1.) Money: As Fischer reports, the Puritans were not fans of capitalism, our economic system with roots as far back as the 14th century. They believed in a more evenly distributed system of wealth and some of their laws were designed to prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Their society condemned a hedonistic pursuit of money as wealthy Puritan businessman Robert Keayne found out the hard way.

After overpricing bridles to increase his profit margin, Fischer writes, Keayne was charged in 1639 with oppression. He was fined heavily and Keayne later wrote that even after paying the fine, some officials wanted an even stiffer punishment. Keayne said these individuals wished,

“corporal punishment was added to it, such as …standing openly on a market day with a bridle in his mouth, or at least around his neck.” 

After the incident John Cotton wrote some New England best business practices. These codes went beyond the concept of charging consumer’s a fair price. Cotton said a businessman should not do the following:

  • Buy cheap and sell high
  • Raise the price of a product to cover a loss (like cargo lost at sea)
  • Use his intimate knowledge of a product to exploit a consumer’s ignorance

But one thing an upright businessman should do, Cotton wrote, was absorb a loss if he overpaid for a commodity. As Fischer astutely points out — had the businessmen followed Cotton’s suggestions, they probably would not have succeeded in their ventures.

2.) Recreation: Although as Calvinists, the Puritans were not big on holidays (including Christmas), they were not opposed to recreation for its own sake — within reason. Increase Mather wrote,

For a Christian to use recreation is very lawful, and in some cases a great duty.

According to Fischer, Puritans felt that recreation was proper as long as it was done in moderation. They believed recreation, usually in the form of sports similar to baseball and football, would refresh the spirit. This is distinctly different from colonies to the south where ball-centric games (football, baseball, etc.) were not common.

In some of the games, men and women would compete against each other. Massachusetts military units went so far as to require physical activities and as early as 1639, these units sponsored sporting events.

At least two significant rules about these activities did exist. Games were not permitted on Sundays (and violators could be severely punished) and games associated with gambling and drinking were discouraged. In some cases they were illegal. The Bay Colony outlawed games like shuffleboard, card and dice games while most communities actively discouraged horse racing, Fischer notes.

3.) Sex: As difficult as it is for some to believe, writing and talking about sex was not taboo in Puritan society. In fact, even as late as the mid-20th century publishers afraid of offending readers heavily edited early Puritan writings to remove sexual content, according to Fischer. This doesn’t mean, though, they were a free-loving, 60s-style society. They were just pragmatic. Sex, they felt was a part of life — no different than, say — animal husbandry.

For the most part, their sex laws mirrored statements found in the Old Testament except the concept of marriage. Fischer notes the Puritans believed marriage was a civil contract — not a religious ceremony. They believed if the contract was broken, the marriage could be ended through a divorce. Court records show they granted divorces for adultery, cruelty, dissertion, failure to provide and fraudulent contract, Fischer writes.

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way

Two distinctive marriage trends emerged in the Bay Colony.

Unlike elsewhere, Puritans married later in life, Fischer says. The average age for men was 26 and the average age for women was 23. This posed an obvious problem — controlling the sex drive. Being a practical people, they invented intriguing ways that let people privately court in the midst of a crowd.

The bundling board — sometimes combined with a bundling sock (basically a modified chastity belt) — allowed a courting couple to go to bed together, at a parent’s house, while preventing coitus. The board divided the bed while the bundling sock kept the woman’s legs together.

Outside the bedroom, couples used a courting stick to whisper into each other’s ear giving them privacy while family and friends sat close by.

Puritans believed that an intimate sexual bond between husband and wife was important and necessary and did not buy into sexual asceticism or place as high a value on chastity as Roman Catholics and other Christians did, Fischer writes. This did not mean they encouraged sexual indiscretion. They believed sexual relations were only sanctioned between a husband and wife.

Babies Out Of Wedlock

As Fischer notes, the rate of illegitimate children in the Puritan colonies was significantly lower than in other early British American colonies. Laws were put in place to prevent non-married men and women from being alone in the same room. Adultery was a capital offense and three were executed under the provisions of the law. Fornicators, especially men, were severely punished, he reports.

Most of the rules, regulations and customs did not veer far from biblical principles, including the use of any type of contraceptive method which was strictly prohibited based on the story of Onan found in Genesis 38.

But a couple of their sexual beliefs led to some unusual problems.

Fear and Misunderstanding

Fischer tells the story of one poor soul — a one-eyed servant named George Spencer — who was accused of bestiality after a sow gave birth to a one-eyed piglet. Under intense pressure, Spencer confessed, recanted, confessed and recanted. Since the crime was a capital offense, under Puritan law two witnesses (observing the actual act) were required. The judges, convinced that Spencer had participated in an act of bestiality, admitted the deformed piglet as one witness and used Spencer’s coerced confession as the other witness. Spencer was hanged to death.

Besides an abhorrent fear of the unexplained or supernatural, the Puritans did not completely understand how the human gestation period worked. Fischer explains that Puritans believed a child was born on the same day of the week the child was conceived. Since sexual acts were forbidden on Sundays, this presented a significant problem for children unlucky enough to be born on a Sunday. Elders often refused to allow these children to be baptized or accepted into the church, Fischer writes.

Drunken Infants?

The oddest thing I learned from the book was about alcohol usage at funerals. Because of a high school history class, I knew Puritans drank alcohol and, in general, consumed it with their meals. What I did not know, though, was how significant alcohol was to the funeral process. Puritans had an almost unnatural fear of death but, in accordance with their customs, remained stoic and non-emotional during a funeral service. After the funeral ended, food and alcohol was served, and it was a much, much different scenario.

As Fischer explains,

“Then suddenly the restraints were removed on one of the few occasions when New Englanders drank to excess. Entire communities became intoxicated. Even little children went reeling and staggering through the bleak burying grounds. There are descriptions of infants so intoxicated that they slipped into the yawning grave.”

Where They Landed

For the most part, the Puritans lived in present-day Massachusetts before expanding and splintering into Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and other segments in the northeast. Fischer focuses mostly on the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Generally speaking the Bay Colony Puritans were wealthy and well educated while the Puritans at Plymouth Rock were mostly working class.

Where They Came From

An integral part of Fischer’s book is his theory that each British American colony pulled its population from a very specific region of England. The customs from those regions were transported to the United States and remain a viable part of the country’s moral and social fabric, he contends. In the case of the Bay Colony Puritans, most of the them originally lived within a 60-mile radius of Haverhill — a town located in East England, Fischer reports.

Key Attribute And Players

The migration of families is a key distinction of the Puritan Bay Colony since the other British American colonies tended to be populated with unattached individuals. A few of the most well-known Puritan settlers are:


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